For decades, Nadia Salmaniw has been fighting for First Nations status.
“My grandmother and my mom applied on my brother and I’s behalf, and my cousin Royce, multiple times,” she says. “Multiple times since my childhood and multiple times we’ve been turned down by the government of Canada.”
This is because her great-grandfather chose to give up his status so that his children could avoid the horrors of the residential school system.
He was one of many who chose enfranchisement to gain rights First Nations people did not have at the time such as voting in Canadian elections or owning land.
The government did away with enfranchisement under the Indian Act in 1985, but the discriminatory policy continues to affect thousands of people.
People who had been enfranchised were allowed to reclaim their status but this has often not been the case for their descendants.
Kathryn Fournier has First Nations status but her three children do not because her grandfather chose enfranchisement.
“My grandfather wanted to vote,” Fournier says. “They’d mostly lived on reserve or in unincorporated areas – so Indian country – but then when they moved to Kenora it was a place I guess where he could vote if he wasn’t an Indian. So, he enfranchised.”
Salmaniw and Fournier are two of 16 plaintiffs in a Charter of Rights challenge against the federal government filed in the B.C. Supreme Court last summer.
Ryan Beaton is their lawyer.
“The category that’s never been dealt with are these descendants of individuals who submitted an application,” says Beaton, who works out of Juristes Power Law’s Vancouver office.
“So today, there are individuals – children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren – of those individuals who are still denied status because of a family history of enfranchisement and we’ve said that’s discriminatory.”
Last week, the Trudeau government announced it had reached an agreement with the plaintiffs to put the litigation on hold.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu says the government plans to introduce legislation by the summer that will make further amendments to the Indian Act, allowing these descendants to re-apply and hopefully gain status.
“There’s so many different scenarios out there where people lost their status and lost their associated rights,” she says. “And I would say that my sense is that the majority of that was an effort by the federal government to colonize. And to decrease the numbers of Indigenous people, if you will, that had rights according to treaty.
“This government has been very, I think, intentional through our work to make sure that we make reparations to groups that lost their status.”
Regardless of the outcome and what has been a long and painful process in trying to gain status, Salmaniw says she is now more determined than ever to see it through.
“Personally, I want to see justice here for every single person, every single Indigenous person, who gave up their Indigeneity in a forced way. Whether it was to vote, whether it was to protect their children, whether it was to gain land, whether it was simply because they had it so broken out of them in residential school,” she says.